Can I Go Home Again?

The last time I lived in West Virginia, officially, was in 2003.

Gov. Bob Wise was in the midst of a controversy surrounding an affair that would derail his administration. Many from the state, my age and younger, were leaving to fight the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many, as well, were leaving the state believing they could never find what they were looking for at home.

I was one of them. In 2003, I was a regional writer for The Clarksburg Exponent-Telegram. I was miserable and I thought it was because of my salary, my displeasure with the news side of the journalism world after being a sports writer, or even not being near the lights of a big city. It would take time to realize what was making me unhappy was my own personal life.

In search of happiness, and greener pastures, I took a flyer on a job in another town, in another state, but believing it would solve all my problems. I moved from one newsroom to another by picking up my notepad and moving to The Shelby Star in Shelby, N.C.

That was the summer of 2003. When I left, I swore I would never return to West Virginia other than to visit family and to watch my beloved Mountaineers.

For 16 years, though, I did just that. I stayed away other than family visits, funerals, and the occasional West Virginia game (though, I haven’t been to Mountaineer Field since the UConn game in 2007). Even though my address was different, I have long recognized that I never really left. I have always kept at least one foot in the Mountain State. I can name off state issues in West Virginia quicker than I can those facing Kentucky. I can get more frustrated with the lack of progress in Beckley, W.Va., than I do Paducah.

It has always been home. In a few weeks, I will be returning home. I’m going back to the Mountain State with a sense of excitement. I’m going home, also, with a deeper appreciation for the home state that came as a result of leaving for a period of time. This is the place I want to be with my family.

That doesn’t stop me, though, from having doubts about whether I can serve God well in West Virginia. No pastor is without their fair share of doubts or concerns about whether they are effective in the task God has called them to undertake. These doubts have escalated as I prepare to say goodbye to one congregation and begin to start with another.

A lot of my doubts and fear center around this phrase of Scripture: “no prophet is accepted in their own hometown.” (Luke 4:24) While Huntington is not my hometown, anyone from West Virginia will tell you the entire state is home.

A recent clip from Steve Harvey’s talk show is a perfect example of this. The clip is from a segment on his talk show where he interacts with two people on the street. They are from Beckley, W.Va. Immediately upon hearing this, Harvey reacts like anyone else from West Virginia when they see the Flying WV or green and white of Marshall University outside of the state. He begins to smile and beam with an excitement before shouting, “Beckley, West Virginia, baby! Let’s keep it alive! I like that!” Harvey is a native of West Virginia having been born near Welch, which is approximately 75 minutes from Beckley.

It doesn’t matter. The entire state is your hometown. For the record, I have been known to share the same sense of excitement when I see someone wearing the Flying WV outside of West Virginia. This includes running into people from West Virginia while on a recent trip to the Holy Land.

All that being said, it is hard to be a prophet in your own hometown. Jesus experienced this in Nazareth. There he shared about his messianic purpose to welcome God’s reign to all people. It was not well-received by the community that quickly turned to thinking of Jesus in terms of his connection to the town and not the words he said. Not too long afterwards, the same people who knew Jesus throughout his early life were attempting to get rid of him.

While no pastor is Jesus, there are still the same concerns of being able to speak effectively and prophetically into places where we are deeply familiar. Can a prophet in their hometown truly speak on the injustices that exist? Can a prophet in their hometown express God’s pain at the struggles the people live into? Can a prophet truly point the people of their hometown towards a better way in God’s holy love?

These are things I am wrestling with as the boxes begin to accumulate all around me. They are not, however, questions that will prevent me from leading as God calls me to lead or speak when I believe it is necessary. As we learn with the story of Thomas (John 20:19-29), opportunities to grow in God’s love and our calling to share the love of God with all people come as we push forward through our doubts and questions.

We recognize them. We express them. We embrace them. But, too, we allow them to be spaces where God’s grace works in and us and through us to point us to a deeper sense of God’s love.

A work that is well needed, now, as I prepare to do something I never thought I would do again … go home.

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What if We Were Like Thomas?

Ever had to see something to believe it?

Someone tells you something that is so unbelievable and so amazing that the only way you’ll ever believe that person is by seeing it for yourself. It’s not that we don’t trust the source – well, maybe sometimes we don’t – but it’s often that this event is just so unbelievable that you’ve got to do some investigating on your own.

Perhaps that was what it was like for you on September 11, 2001. We all remember where we were on that day. If you were like me on that Tuesday morning, you probably did a double take when you heard the first reports. I can remember hearing Peter Jennings on the local Top 40 station while driving home after a psychology exam at WVU. I was working as a sports writer at the time and when Jennings, one of the most trusted men in journalism, said there was a plane that hit the Twin Towers, I wasn’t sure what to make of the reports. One thing, though, I didn’t believe we were under attack.

I had to see the images with my own eyes and when I got home, my deepest fears were confirmed. I saw the second plane hit and and I sat in shock. We were under attack. I’m sure we each have moments from that day where we weren’t sure what to believe or what was going on.

We had to see it with our own eyes.

In our passage today, even Thomas needed to see with own eyes.

Thomas says he needs to see Christ before he can believe that Christ is risen from the dead and has won the victory over sin and death. We know this passage quite well, and because of it we have called Thomas a “doubter.” Our position here on April 14, 2010 gives us the hindsight of some 2,000 years so that we can say Christ is risen indeed. We celebrated this momentous and history-changing event on Easter Sunday. Yet Thomas doubted, even on the first Easter. He had to see Christ with his own two eyes and touch the wounds with his own two hands before he could believe.

What if we are more like Thomas than we care to admit? Do we doubt? Is it possible for us to doubt even while we are here in the comfort of Wilmore, Ky., preparing for ministry? What would that mean for us? And what would Jesus’ interaction with Thomas say to us, gathered here today, as we prepare to lead our congregations to deeper and richer faith in the Risen Lord.

To answer these questions, let us examine what all is going on in this passage. What had taken place prior to Thomas’ moment of doubt and his interaction with Jesus?

It was that first Easter Day. Just a few days prior, the disciples had witnessed Jesus being betrayed by Judas, arrested, and brought to trial, first to the High Priests and then to Pontius Pilate. Even Peter, the man whom Christ said he would build the foundation of the church upon, had denied Christ. The disciples witnessed as Jesus, this man whom they left everything to follow and whom they knew was the Lord, was abused, cursed at, rejected, and eventually hung on the cross. They were mourning the loss of their friend and the Lord.

It was an emotional time for the disciples, and they were in fear. They weren’t sure what the religious leaders of the day were going to do next. Even more, they weren’t sure that they were safe from receiving the same treatment Jesus received from the religious authorities.

Then, on the first day of the week, our Sunday, something took place. Rumors were circulating, and stories were being reported. The tomb is empty, the women said, and they were not sure where the Lord had gone. Peter and the other disciple ran out to check and see for themselves that the tomb was empty. Later more reports started to come in. Mary Magdalene said she saw Jesus at the tomb. She thought it was the gardner at first, but there he stood alive. Other reports came and the same was being reported – Jesus lives!

By that evening, the disciples were gathered together. The reports were many and they weren’t sure what to do or what to make of the reports. They were in fear. Perhaps some were doubting, as Matthew and Luke seem to indicate when they write of the first time the disciples saw Jesus. Even if they could believe Mary, Chrysostom says, “they would be sad that he had not considered them worthy of such a vision.”

In the midsts of this fear, emotional pain, and even doubt, Jesus comes. He greets the gathered disciples with peace and shows them his hands and his side. There were the marks on Jesus’ hands and his side where the Romans had crucified him. He is alive! Jesus is alive! And the disciples rejoiced! Their pain was gone, and they were overcome with the joy of seeing the Lord. Then Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit upon them and commissions them. He gives them their calling. As Jesus was sent to world, so were the disciples. Jesus called them to a life of forgiveness and service to others.

What an amazing moment! I would have loved to have been there for that moment. To be in the presence of the Lord on the first Easter – what a joy!

But Thomas wasn’t there.

He was missing. We’re not sure where he was, but he wasn’t with the remaining disciples.

So you can just imagine Thomas’ pain when he returned to them and they reported on what had taken place in the room. “Get this, Thomas, Jesus is alive! He was here! He breathed on us the Holy Spirit and he gave us the commission to go out and teach forgiveness. What a night! You should’ve been here.”

I can imagine Thomas’ heart sinking. He missed it. The disciples were there and were able to see Jesus and he missed it. You can imagine the pain Thomas was feeling and the anguish that overwhelmed him. If only he had been there.

Then Thomas does something that I am sure catches the rejoicing disciples off guard. He looks at them and with the most stubborn look says, “Unless I see the marks of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the marks of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Thomas doubts. We don’t know much about Thomas, but what we do know we have to wonder is if this was out of character for him. It was Thomas who showed bravery when Jesus was wanting to go to Judea to see Lazarus, even with the fear death. Thomas said “let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Yet Thomas wasn’t the first disciple to have doubted. He wasn’t even the first person in the Bible to have doubts. We can think to Abram and Moses, men of great faith, who had periods of doubts in their walk with God. There were a long list of others as well.

But on the first Easter, Thomas doubted.

We tend to look down on Thomas, perhaps even judging him by giving him the moniker of “doubting.” Why is that? I think that is because we see a little bit of Thomas in our own spiritual walks and it makes us uncomfortable.

We can all relate to Thomas. We’ve all had moments of doubts. We’ve struggled with our faith and wrestled with what it means to follow Christ. Maybe we’ve doubted whether God truly had forgiven us. Maybe we’ve doubted our own callings and purpose in life. Maybe we’ve doubted whether God exists.

Even Mother Teresa, as she worked among the poor in Calcutta, India, wrestled with periods of doubts and questions about her faith. None of us are immune from periods of doubts.

Bruce DeMarest writes, “The Christian life is not an aimless wandering but a challenging and sometimes perplexing pilgrimage to spiritual maturity and ultimately to our heavenly home.” Part of that pilgrimage, I believe, includes moments where we wrestling with the very fabric of what it means to follow Christ.

We can relate to Thomas.

We can picture ourselves in Thomas’ shoes the following week. It had to have been an emotional week for Thomas as it is for any of us who struggle with doubts. All around the world is rejoicing and we are struggling with the basics of faith. Thomas’ friends were rejoicing, yet he could not join them. I’m sure he wanted to, just as we want to be among the rejoicing when we doubt. He just could not join them yet. He needed to see with his own eyes.

So the next week, Thomas would have his chance and this time Thomas was there with the disciples. Nothing was going to keep Thomas from a possible meeting with Jesus that night. Even while struggling with his doubts, Thomas was with his community and his friends. He didn’t run. He embraced his doubts and came to this community.

I think we can learn something as we respond to our own doubts and those of the people God has placed on our hearts to care for.

As the church universal, we’ve not done a good job in helping people through their doubts. Instead, we’ve run from those with doubts. Instead of engaging people in these difficult moments, we’ll offer platitudes of “just have faith and believe.” Instead of offering community, we’ll judge. Instead of being the church, we’ll push away those who are struggling with their faith. By doing so, we are pushing away people who have honest questions and emotional Thomas moments in their life who need faithful Christian men and women to stand by their side in love and engagement in their doubts.

We have an opportunity to change this and Christ gives us the model in his interaction with Thomas. Jesus doesn’t scold Thomas for his lack of faith. He doesn’t ask Thomas to leave the room so he can speak with the assembled believing disciples. Instead, he meets Thomas at the point of his need. He says to him, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” Jesus knew what Thomas needed to believe and freely gave him that gift.

How would it look for the church today to compassionately meet the needs of those who struggle with faith? In the Great Commission in Matthew 28:16-20, Christ calls us to go and make disciples of all the nations. Part of making disciples means we join with one another in community that fosters open dialogue and discussion about the questions we may have and the doubts we may share about our faith. We are called to imitate Christ in community with one another exhorting one another through the difficult moments. We are to be a church that reaches out to the doubter and meets them in their need and help them to see the risen Lord in their life. Maybe it’s a word, maybe it’s a sense of encouragement, or maybe it is walking with them in their struggles. Whatever it is, let us not be a generation of leaders that ignores those who hurt in such emotional and spiritually difficult ways.

As we do this, the words of Jesus to Thomas ring out. Jesus gives Thomas, and future believers who struggle with doubt, this command: “Do not doubt but believe.” Because Christ is resurrected, it requires a response even as we struggle with our doubts. Are we going to remain pointed towards Christ or are we going to allow our will to be directed by our own fear? Will we fall at the feet of the Lord or will we seek comfort in our own fears?

Like all of us in our moments of doubt, Thomas now had a choice to make. He makes a powerful and emotional choice. You can see Thomas’ emotion pouring out in that room. He had just seen Jesus. He is seeing with his own eyes! And he says, I’m sure in the loudest of voices of praise, “My Lord and my God.” Thomas, the doubter, becomes the first to proclaim that Jesus was Lord and God. In this intense period of doubt, his faith was strengthened and he came out stronger in his faith.

Thomas believed, and in doing so he helps us through our own unbelief. Jesus knew there would be a time when believers would come, through the gift of faith, into relationship with God without having seen Jesus in person. He says those individuals are blessed. Faith is a life lived with our wills directed towards God, even when it seems difficult or we struggle to do so. Faith is a commitment of ourselves to the journey of faith, through the mountains and the valleys, that bring us to a deeper obedience and dependence on the Triune God.

So, what if we were more like Thomas? I wish we were more like Thomas, because I believe we would be more honest about our struggles and more open with each other. I believe we would grow into deeper and more committed communities of faith that lean on each other, and ultimately the grace of God, as we work through these struggles and pains in our own lives and the lives of our communities. Perhaps we might even come out more committed to God than when we entered a period of doubt.

It all depends on our will and where we desire to direct our hope and trust even as we struggle. May we strive to grow in our faith just like Thomas.